For many years, I didn't realize a big part of why I was feeling so crappy all the time was because of my lymphedema. Through a process of elimination, I figured out that besides just the swelling, the unwell feelings, body discomfort, nausea and brain fog all stemmed from the backup of lymphatic fluid in my body.
The hard part with lymphedema is that depending on where your damage is or how extensive it is, will determine your approach to managing your lymphedema. There's no one size fits all self care routine. Unfortunately, because of the inconsistencies in medical care, many times you're left on your own to figure out how to help yourself feel better so you can get back to living your life.
I'm not a doctor or healthcare professional, I'm just a person with lymphedema sharing my experience. Always check with your health care team before starting any new self care routine. I get how isolating and discouraging dealing with lymphedema everyday can be so I'm sharing my 3 easiest and most effective self care go-tos.
Although my body's reaction varies, it's still amazing the difference I feel before and after I do my self care. With lymphedema, consistent self care is the most important way to keep symptoms from becoming life-sucking. Let’s dive into how we can take better care of ourselves!
1. Wearing Compression Garments
The absolute, number one way to manage your lymphedema and slow its progression is wearing compression garments. Luckily today there are so many different styles, compression strengths and options that can fit each person's situation.
Classic Medical Compression - off the shelf or custom made
Unfortunately, there can be a bit of trial and error until you find what works best for you. If you're lucky enough to have a lymphedema therapist or an educated medical professional, definitely work with them. For those of you who don't, always make sure you are compressing at least one full body segment ahead of your swelling. For example, if your swelling goes down into your ankle, your foot should also have compression so the fluid doesn't become trapped.
The reality is, the more progressed your lymphedema is, the less options you have. At this point, you're really fighting to keep your lymphedema from becoming completely life-debilitating.
If you are lucky enough to get diagnosed and manage your lymphedema from an early stage, do it! It's much easier to keep yourself from progressing rather than trying to undo the damage that has already been done.
The type, strength and amount of time you have to wear compression will be very dependent on the stage of your lymphedema. If you're being preventative, you will most likely only need to wear a garment while flying, exercising or doing repetitive motions such as cleaning and vacuuming. If your lymphedema has reared its ugly head, you will have to wear compression garments throughout the day and possibly at night as well. I get this can be completely depressing and overwhelming but the alternative is absolutely not worth it, I promise.
When I was first diagnosed, I was prescribed tight, extremely uncomfortable medical compression garments that didn't give me results.
I discovered Solidea, an innovative Italian compression garment manufacturer. After trying their garments, I was blown away by how easy they were to wear and the results I got from them. They made my body feel closer to its old self and even a bit more energized. I was able to focus more on my life and less on my lymphedema. I know this might sound a bit cheesy, but they gave me my hope back.
My number one self care practice for my lymphedema continues to be wearing Solidea’s Active Massage Compression Garments everyday. Solidea’s compression garments work on an entirely different principle than classic compression wear. Instead of tight compression designed to hold in fluid, Solidea’s Active Massage garments are designed with lower compression paired with a wave pattern that stimulates and moves fluid. If you want to learn more about the difference between classic medical compression and massaging compression click here.
2. Gentle Exercise
For anyone with lymphedema, exercise and movement are a crucial part of self care. Unlike our circulatory system which has the heart as a pump, our lymphatic system does not have a central pump and only goes in one general direction. It is mainly through muscle contractions that lymph fluid moves through the system. No movement equals a stagnant lymph system. Visualize a vacuum cleaner, if the hose is clogged, it won't be able to take in what's on the floor. The higher the clog the more it backs up. To learn more about how the lymphatic system works click here.
However, exercising with lymphedema can be tricky because it increases circulation which in turn, increases the fluid leaking into your tissues from your circulatory system. How impaired your lymphatic system is will determine how well it can handle this extra fluid. Therefore, always start very slow and build up over time.
Here are my favorite gentle exercises that help me feel a little lighter:
Deep breathing is exercise for your lymphatic system and can be practiced throughout the entire day. To get a much deeper breath, I breathe through my nose while visualizing the air going deep into my lungs. This forces my nostrils to open more and my belly to rise. There are lots of online guides for techniques on deep breathing you can try. I especially focus on deep breathing while I'm doing any type of exercise.
Even though it's not one of my favorite things to do, walking is one of the quickest and easiest ways to get the lymph system moving after sitting for a while. It also helps to get out and often into a new mindset. Bonus: my dog loves it too!
The shift in body position and movement changes your weight distribution which in turn supports lymph movement. So bring your sneakers if you are stuck in the office.
No need to speed walk or force yourself to go for very long. If you enjoy walking, you can always increase the length or go faster if you like.
For everybody, and especially those who are more limited with what they can do, stretching is a fabulous way to feel better and move lymph. It's a gentle way to create muscle contractions. There are endless numbers of stretching or even gentle yoga routines that you can search for online. The one thing I would say is to be thoughtful in the order you do your stretches. Always remember to start with your core (both front and back) and move outward.
Recently, I discovered that simply doing a circuit of 4 or more different types of sit ups clears my core which is extremely helpful at getting my lymph moving. I do one set of each type of sit up until I start to feel my muscles. Between each exercise, I take a break and do 3-5 deep breaths.
To see me in action here is a link to a video I did click here.
Light Strength Training
Originally the medical community thought lifting would increase swelling but trials and research have proven that this a very effective part of self care. When you lift, you're contracting and releasing muscles which is a much stronger pump for your lymphatic system.
I find it's important to clear your core (like in my sit ups above) before lifting with your arms or your legs so your lymphatic fluid will have a pathway to drain. As with everything else with lymphedema, you have to be very thoughtful about the weight and reps so it suits your personal situation.
Since I swell fairly easily, I find doing one rep with low weight or no weight (depending on which body part I'm working out) works really well. There are a ton of gentle strength training routines if you search online.
For those of us who are lucky enough to have access to a pool, this is by far the best self care option for everyone who has lymphedema. Whether you do laps, water exercise, walk or just hang out, water offers incredible benefits and relief for lymphedema because it provides natural graduated compression. The deeper the water, the more compression.
Further boost your lymphatic system by adding in a few deep belly breaths and try taking a few dives down as far as you can go in the deep end. I find the increased pressure has an amazing effect. I did a video quite a while ago of my swimming routine (P.S. We are no longer Solidea Medical, we are now Solidea U.S 😊) if you are interested in checking it out click here.
It's an absolute must to find a balance between gentle exercise to stimulate your lymphatic system and resting to give it a chance to reset.
3. Rest, Rest, Rest!
Most days I wake up and feel good and ready to go. But by noon, I start to feel a little fullness in my head which puts pressure on my eyes. I have to think harder to find words and concentrate a lot harder to try and stay focused. My body starts to feel heavy, fatigued and like I'm hitting a wall. If you experience this, you know exactly what I mean.
After many years of trying to fight through but losing almost every time, I discovered that taking a break at that point allows my body to reset so I can have a second half to my day.
For me, laying horizontally in bed with my legs up gives my body a chance to stop working against itself. This is hard to do and sometimes makes me feel like others are judging me for being "lazy." However, I've found that more times than not, I feel way better so I can get way more done.
These days, instead of working until I hit a wall, I check in with how my body and mind are feeling.
Some questions that help me are:
Is my brain feeling foggy?
Have I stopped being able to focus or think clearly?
Am I losing my words or train of thought?
Does my body feel heavy or achy?
Do I feel like I want to jump out of my skin?
If I answer yes to any of these questions, if I can, I stop what I’m doing and lay down. Sometimes this looks like a 20 minute power nap. Other times, I need to lie in bed for a longer period.
For me, laying down is one of the hardest self care practices but without it, I become completely useless by the end of the day. It's well worth the 20 minutes to an hour of rest for a chance to move on with your day.